My husband is a college student. Since he's about a decade older than the average freshman, he has an interesting combination of insider and outsider perspectives on campus life. One phenomenon he finds fascinating is walking from one class to another and watching groups of people walking and talking. But not to each other. Commonly, they're all engaged in separate cell phone conversations.
If it seems that teens are beginning to sprout new addendums to their limbs that look strangely like mobile phones, it's because they practically are. According to a 2007 study by research firm iGR, 50 to 70 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds have their own cell phones, and the numbers are even higher among 15- to 17-year-olds. There's even talk of a "significant percentage" of 5- to 9-year-olds who have a phone.1 According to Disney Mobile, cellular users ages 10 to17 use their phones almost four hours per day during the summer, and an hour or so less than that during the school year.2
And they don't use their phones just for talking. They access the Internet. They text message. They instant message. They play music. They play games. They shoot video and take pictures. Not surprisingly, a recent survey by OTX reported that text messaging is the favorite mobile phone activity of 72 percent of teens.3
Parents who add their kids and teens to their family cell phone plans say they're doing so primarily for safety reasons.4 Teens appreciate the gesture, with 75 percent saying that a major benefit of having a cell phone is the security they feel in being able to reach their families at anytime. 5
On the flip side, there are some concerns to be weighed by parents who are considering handing their teens the privilege and responsibility of owning a cell phone. One is the cost — not because teen talk is necessarily expensive, but because the non-voice applications that teens favor tend to rack up expenses above and beyond the cost of the basic mobile plan. In fact, an almost-comical news story out of Australia recently revealed that more and more Aussie teens are seeking to declare themselves bankrupt after unknowingly running up cell phone bills in the $3,000 to $4,000 range by accessing "premium content."6
Even if your teen is wise enough to avoid cell phone bills in the quadruple digits, it's still important to talk about limits. For example, will you pay for unlimited text messaging and mobile Internet access for your teen? Or do you favor the idea of paying for a basic service plan and requiring your young person to foot the bill for extras?
Finally, driving while using a mobile phone is a concern that's perpetually in the news. Recently, teens have been at the epicenter of the issue. That's because several states have proposed or adopted laws that specifically target teens who use cell phones while driving. And it's not just talking and driving that lawmakers are worried about. It's texting and driving.7, 8 And lawmakers have good reason for concern.
A 2005 Ford Motor Company study showed that teen drivers are four times as distracted by cell phones as are adult drivers. When using a cell phone behind the wheel, teens failed to recognize 50 percent of the potentially dangerous occurrences on the road around them.9 If that's not a reason to have a serious conversation with your teen about cell phones and driving, I don't know what is.